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Women scientists reach for the stars in Silent Sky

Lauren Gunderson’s play staged at CTP explores career vs. family in early 1900s

Based on true events, Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” opening next week at Collaborative Theatre Project explores a woman’s place in society during a time of immense scientific discoveries but also when women’s ideas were often dismissed.

It’s the early 1900s, and Henrietta Leavitt, a Radcliffe graduate, is invited to join a dedicated group of women who work at the Harvard Observatory charting the stars. Henrietta (Brianna Gowland) meets Annie Cannon (Caitlyn Olson) and Williamina Fleming (Judith Rosen) as they work endlessly to record the millions of starts in the sky to determine distance and size of the heavenly bodies.

Henrietta leaves behind her sister, Margaret (Jessi Shieman), and her home in Wisconsin for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But when she arrives at the Harvard Observatory, she isn’t allowed to touch a telescope or express an original idea. Instead, she joins the women “computers” whose work is then given to a renowned astronomer who calculates projects in “girl hours.”

In her free time, Henrietta attempts to measure the light and distance of starts at the same time taking measure of her life on Earth. She tries to strike an almost impossible balance between her dedication to science, family obligations and love.

Aversa-Orrego says she was struck by the incredible power of the script and the supple interplay of faith and science that weaves throughout the script.

Social progress, like scientific progress, can be hard to see when one is trapped among earthly complications; Henrietta Leavitt and her peers believe in both and their dedication changed the way we understand both the heavens and the Earth.

Told with warmth, humor and great passion, “Silent Sky” is a story appropriate for all ages, the theatre says in a press release. “The historical figures are not cold and remote, but rather full of life and joy at their discoveries, frustration for their lack of recognition and closely connected to each other as colleagues and friends.”

The play spans the years from 1900 to 1918, following the progress of scientific discoveries, World War I and familial relationships. Margaret is the stay-at-home sister, taking on the family obligations and caring for the elderly father. Her confrontation with Henrietta lays bare the endless conflict of career versus family in a truly poignant and beautifully crafted scene between the two sisters.

Directed and costumed by Susan Aversa-Orrego, the show features original music by Brittany Hreha.

Aversa-Orrego says she was struck by the incredible power of the script and the supple interplay of faith and science that weaves throughout the script.

“In choosing this for our 2019 season, we felt that it was an incredible script to bring to the community. It’s witty, warm and pointed, and while it does make a jab at the secondary status of women in the scientific community, it is never a diatribe,” Aversa-Orrego says in the press release.

The production is scheduled for a three-week run.

Curtain is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 31 through June 16 at the theater, 555 Medford Center, Medford. A preview night will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30.

Tickets for the preview are $15. Regular performances are $18 to $25. Group sales are available at a discount by contacting the theater.

To purchase tickets or for further information, see ctpmedford.org or call 541-779-1055.

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